- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

ST. LOUIS Mike Martz broke into Division I coaching in 1975 at San Jose State while living on food stamps. Unable to find even a high school job after the Arizona State staff was fired in 1992, the 40-year-old talked the Los Angeles Rams into hiring him as an unpaid assistant. That meant leaving his wife, Julie, and four school-age children behind while he moved in with friends in California and used unemployment benefits to pay the family's bills.

"I had always wanted to work in the NFL, and here was the opportunity," Martz said. "[Rams coach] Chuck Knox told me if I did a good job, he would hire me or make sure I got a job with another team. I was really excited. I had a great future if I just worked hard."

Today Martz is the million-dollar architect of the most potent offense the NFL has ever seen. But the rookie coach of the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams hasn't forgotten the days when he and Julie had cereal for dinner several times a week and didn't know if he would be able to again support his family via football.

"I'm a lot better for those experiences," Martz said. "Everybody should have to stand in the unemployment line at some point in their lives. It helps you when you come across things that are really difficult because you know you can make it. You don't get overwhelmed. Life goes on. You find a way to keep yourself happy."

Martz's easy smile and generally calm demeanor compared to that of Dick Vermeil, the emotional coach whom he served as offensive coordinator last season, belie his resolve.

"Mike's a straightforward guy," said veteran receiver Ricky Proehl. "He's going to tell you what he wants, and you better know what you're doing or he's going to put someone else in there."

That was made clear when Martz responded to an embarrassing 54-34 loss at Kansas City on Oct. 22 by benching defensive end Kevin Carter and cornerback Todd Lyght, who had been in the Pro Bowl nine months earlier and were the Rams' longest-tenured starters.

"If that's not a message, you're not listening," said linebacker Mike Jones.

Carter was angry, but his playing time decreased only from 89 percent to 78 percent of the snaps. And Martz saw enough improvement to reinsert Carter for this Sunday's game against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. And the entire defense realized that Martz meant business. The Rams have allowed 25 fewer yards and seven fewer points per game the past two weeks than over the first seven games.

"Mike's not afraid to make decisions that could go either way," defensive tackle D'Marco Farr said. "He told the whole squad what he was doing, and it was received well. You don't see every rookie head coach attacking problems head on like that."

But Martz does have a softer side. Farr said the coach likes a good joke, and Martz made a point of sticking around after his post-practice news conference Wednesday to watch Farr be honored by the St. Louis chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association. Martz also is a Civil War and Western history buff. The Martz family vacationed in Montana two summers ago with the family of then-Redskins running game coordinator Bobby Jackson.

"Mike's very intelligent, honest and very organized," said Jackson, who bonded with Martz when they coached together in Washington in 1997 and 1998. "But in Washington, he wasn't a guy who needed to stand out and say, 'I'm the greatest quarterback coach.' "

Quarterback Trent Green was surprised at the change in his former position coach when they reunited in St. Louis last season.

"Mike didn't have the final say in Washington as he has here," Green said. "I remember the first minicamp when we both got here. He's out there barking at guys, telling them where to line up and what to do. I broke out laughing. He looked at me and says, 'What are you laughing about?' I said, 'I've never seen this side of you.' "

Said receiver Chris Thomas, who also has played for Martz the past four seasons in Washington and St. Louis: "In Washington, we didn't know there was a mastermind behind the mask."

It sure seems that way now. In 1998, the Rams limped to a 4-12 record while averaging 18 points, 211 passing yards and 280 total yards. With Martz running the offense in 1999, the Rams went 13-3 while averaging 33 points, 272 passing yards and 401 total yards.

Despite being without MVP quarterback Kurt Warner for the past 2 and 1/2 games and record-setting halfback Marshall Faulk the last time out, St. Louis is 7-2. If the Rams maintain their averages of 39.3 points, 370 passing yards and 484 total yards, they would shatter NFL marks.

"This game's supposed to be fun," Martz said. "You don't want to stifle talented people. You want them energized. They look forward to finding out what we're doing every week."

The mix of the passing attacks of San Diego's Don Coryell and San Francisco's Bill Walsh and the shifting and motion of Redskins coaches Joe Gibbs and Norv Turner has proved lethal to defenses.

"You look forward to going to meetings because the way Mike draws things up is how they happen in games," Proehl said. "He's great at looking a defense and finding holes."

While the transition from veteran head coach Vermeil to neophyte Martz has been smooth for the offense, the switch possibly has had other benefits. Last year's team had just five starters who had been regulars on playoff teams. But this year's battle-hardened champions might not need much reassurance or prodding.

"We've graduated," Farr said. "We went from elementary school, where we had our books and pencils and our nice, little desks, to high school, where you have to go to different classes and be responsible for yourself. Dick did a great job of getting us to the championship level. Now we're a high-powered team learning from a professor. You couldn't have scripted this better. Dick knew when it was time to go, and he turned it over to a guy with fresh ideas."

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